Tunisia attack: Officials were warned of an imminent terrorist attack in Sousse – but did nothing

'Anarchy' in the security services is blamed for the failure

Yasmine Ryan
Saturday 04 July 2015 14:12 BST
Tunisia’s Prime Minister Habib Essid, centre, observes a minute’s silence for the Sousse victims on Friday
Tunisia’s Prime Minister Habib Essid, centre, observes a minute’s silence for the Sousse victims on Friday (Reuters)

The Tunisian interior ministry received an alert in May of an imminent attack in Sousse, but failed to act on the information, the head of a security watchdog has told The Independent.

In official wiretaps of individuals linked to terrorism in Sousse, one individual was heard saying he would “burn a car”, known code for ordering an attack to be carried out.

The officer who listened to the call reported the conversation to the appropriate department in the interior ministry, but no action was taken, according to Walid Zarrouk, a former senior prison guard and the head of Mourakeb, an NGO which monitors security officials.

“When the attack happened in June, and we have some information since May, something isn’t working,” Mr Zarrouk said. The alleged intelligence failure was due to a general state of “anarchy” within the interior ministry, and a lack of political will in the face of widespread corruption and poor discipline, Mr Zarrouk said.

The interior ministry was not available for comment.

Mr Zarrouk’s account follows revelations, reported by The Independent on Wednesday, that talk of an attack on tourists had been widespread on pro-Isis internet forums and Twitter accounts since late February.

Mr Zarrouk has been one of Tunisia’s most outspoken critics of corruption and political interference within the security establishment since 2011, founding the Prison Guards Union, a leading reformist union. He has been arrested for whistleblowing before – not on the grounds that his denouncements were untrue, but for not respecting “the duty of discretion”.

A year ago, he quit the security forces to found Mourakeb and retains many highly placed sources inside the security sector. The interior ministry building, a grey monolith that casts a long shadow over the main street of the capital, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, was the beating heart of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s police state.

But Mr Zarrouk argues that the security services have suffered a series of blows since Ben Ali’s fall that have significantly undermined its ability to function.

More than 180 top anti-terrorist and intelligence officers have been dismissed since Ben Ali’s removal from power, as the new government has sought to break from the corruption and human rights abuses of the past.

But the knock-on effect has been to leave a security service with little or no expertise in counter-terrorism.

Mr Zarrouk says that among the mass dismissals were some experienced officers, who had received training in the West and in field operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Our commanders [now] aren’t specialised in terrorism, because we’re not used to it,” an anti-terrorist officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. These are not the first allegations of the interior ministry failing to act on key intelligence in recent years.

In 2013, Tunisia suffered the unprecedented assassinations of two leftist politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi, within the space of six months.

The investigation into Belaid’s assassination finally went to trial on Tuesday, with many Tunisians seeking answers about why the attacks were not prevented despite warnings, and questions about how the ringleaders managed to repeatedly evade arrest.

This is also not the first time an attacker has attempted to strike tourists on the very same beach where the Imperial Marhaba Hotel lies. In October 2013, a man blew himself up in a failed attack outside the Riadh Hotel, just six miles south along the same coastline.

A police officer, who was also speaking anonymously, said there was a feeling from many in the police force that the top commanders were too afraid to investigate the country’s terrorist networks.

“It’s a catastrophe,” the Tunis-based police officer said. “The chiefs are afraid because they know that these groups are linked to politicians.”

Mr Zarrouk added that investigators rarely seek to uncover the wider networks involved in acts of terrorism.

“There’s no real investigation into who is funding these networks, who is protecting them,” he said.

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